“It is safe to predict that war will be our greatest threat in the 21st century, but we cannot say what kind of war, fought where, to what end. For the United States, now, the danger comes from the Islamist world, which has what seems a nearly unstoppable weapon, in some ways the ultimate weapon. It is the man, woman, boy, or girl willing to give up his or her life.
“In World War II, the U.S. Navy took its most severe losses at Iwo Jima and Okinawa — some 20 percent of all naval losses in the war. The kamikazes got them. There was no machine then, and no computer now, that can respond as fast or as accurately as the human eye and brain. Suicide bombers are relatively easy to train, difficult to stop, and all they have to do is walk — or fly — to their target.”
— Stephen E. Ambrose, “To America”
Congress, fresh from a five-week vacation, has been given a reprieve from having to vote on a resolution giving President Barack Obama authority to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In an address to the American people Tuesday night, Obama asked for a delay in that vote to give diplomacy more time to act. Earlier, the president claimed he did not need the authority he sought, anyway. (More on this later.)
The Republican House of Representatives, despite Speaker John Boehner’s support for the resolution, clearly was poised to defeat it. Not even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seemed confident she could muster a majority of House Democrats to support it. All members of the House and a third of the Senate, if they seek re-election, must face voters next year and all are aware that the public overwhelmingly opposes the United States participating in yet another war in the Muslim Middle East.
Had the president and Secretary of State John Kerry presented a plausible case for intervention — and they did not — they might have won a narrow victory in Congress. It’s very doubtful, though, that a limited missile and/or manned bomber attack (Kerry called it an “unbelievably small” one), would serve any purpose other than adding to an already appalling Syrian casualty list, and heightened U.S. vulnerability to reprisal.
Then, on the eve of President Obama’s address, came the blockbuster news that a John Kerry off-script answer to a reporter’s question as to what might forestall a U.S. attack — Bashar Assad’s surrender of his chemical weapons to international control and destruction — was endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Within hours it was seconded by Bashar Assad.
Obama’s speech was hastily re-scripted, re-researched and re-vetted. Tellingly, when delivered it consumed only a quarter hour of prime time, rather than Obama’s customary whole hour or more.
The wiser course would have been to re-schedule or cancel it outright. But this administration has proven itself disarmingly adept at not choosing wiser courses, and the American people, at long last, appear to be catching on. They are losing faith in a president they have twice elected to office, a president who has staffed his administration from top to bottom with men and women who appear incapable of organizing a three-car funeral, much less military intervention in a civil war where neither side is a real or even potential friend of the United States.
Let us hope that sanity and clearly defined national interest dictate how the congressional debate, when it resumes, concludes. Is there indisputable proof that the Syrian government, and not the Islamist forces fighting to overthrow it, is responsible for the use of chemical weapons? Who benefits if the United States intervenes? Are “moderate” Islamists in control of the forces fighting Assad? Will they and not extremist blood enemies of the United States wind up in control of Syria’s chemical weapons? When all is said and done, do we have a dog in this fight?
The president and his advisors assert that the executive has the authority to launch a military attack on Syria, with or without the approval of Congress. If the plain meaning of words still matters in Washington (and I am not sure it does) then it would appear to be no question but that the president must have specific authorization from Congress to use military force, except in response to an actual or imminent attack on the United States.
That is the way the Constitution and the War Powers Act are written, and if the current misinterpretation of law is allowed to stand, then we no longer live in a republic established on the principle of separation of powers, but in a budding tyranny based on the will and the arrogance of an unbridled executive.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.